Are there many ways to be silent?

Does that strike you as a strange question? It certainly seems so to Western minds. I’d never thought about it until I read in David Remnick’s biography of Barak Obama a quotation from the President’s Indonesian sister, Maya: ‘There is a phrase in Indonesian, diam dalam seribu behasa, that means “to be silent in a thousand languages.”’ Maya comments simply, ‘There are so many ways to be silent. Sometimes it’s in the constant cheerfulness or the space between words.’

But with a little thought I soon began to understand the validity of this claim that there are many ways to be silent. Here a few of them:

[] A golden silence is readily recognised when, say, two friends both stop talking at the mention of some precious memory that popped up in their hitherto animated conversation – maybe of a dear departed friend, or of an exotic sunset. [eg. Job 29:22; Revelation 8:1]

[] An awkward silence involves opposite emotions to golden silence, usually triggered by a reference to some embarrassing tragedy. [ eg. Psalm 31:17; 94:17]

[] A pregnant silence may arise when a problem has been shared in a group and everyone is now contemplating how best to resolve the situation. [eg. Habakkuk 2:20]

[] A vacant silence could be due to sheer exhaustion of body and mind, or the lack of any known subject of common interest among strangers who have been thrown together in unfamiliar circumstances. [eg. Psalm 115:17]

[] A strained silence can result from uncertainty, such as while sitting in the doctor’s consulting room while he reviews the notes of our medical tests before announcing his diagnosis. [Psalm 32:3; Job 4:16]

[] And there are many more ‘languages of silence’ that range from the agitated silence of hamster wheel anxious thoughts [eg. Job 31:34] to the amused silence when observing the ludicrous behaviour of others who are unaware they are being watched. [eg. Psalm 2:4]

[] But it is in the listening silence that President Obama excels, as Professor Robert Putman observed about Obama’s participation as a student in his Saguara Seminars on civic engagement.. ‘He was thoughtful, but not self-revealing. The striking feature was his style in the discussion of hot topics with a lot of big egos. His style was to step back and listen… then he would say, “I hear Joe Smith saying X, and Nancy saying Y, but I think Joe and Nancy actually agree on Z.” It is not a trivial thing to listen for a whole day and see common themes in the midst of an arguing bunch.’

This, surely, is the language of silence that we most need to sharpen in practice; and it is this very style of silence about which Scripture has most to instruct us. [See Ecclesiastes 3:7; Job 29:21-22; Lamentations 3:25-27; Isaiah 41:1; Acts 15:12; 21:40; 22:2]

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